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the man who would be king

8 july 2022

The Arcturus printing of Rudyard Kipling's Man Who Would Be King and Other Stories that I picked up recently has no bibliographical significance; it's just a random bunch of barely-introduced texts, not well-proofread in the bargain. I didn't even re-read the title story, one of my old favorites from print and from the brilliantly panache-y 1975 film by John Huston. I mostly wanted to re-read "Mary Postgate," that uniquely great war story, at its heart an incomparable list of a dead airman's childhood possessions. But there were seven other stories in the book and I figured what the heck. It isn't a very distinguished set of fictions, to my way of thinking, but it does offer a glimpse of the range and the uniqueness of Kipling's work.

Most of the remaining seven involve the supernatural. "The Strange Ride of Morrowbie Jukes" is a story so ghastly one suspects a sort of allegory. It certainly draws from Poe, except being written by Kipling it is set in India and its weirdness arises from what its author believes to be the inherent unthinkableness of the subcontinent. Morrowbie Jukes insists that he survived briefly in a preposterous mantrap, where people who have seemingly died but somehow reawakened, from fit or coma or whatever, are incarcerated - hemmed in by unclimbable sand walls on three sides and quicksand and sharpshooters on the fourth. The pit seems to be some allegorical combination of a colonial posting, middle-aged responsibilities, or perhaps just the eternal Life Itself, and Jukes (we know he will escape) spends the rest of his days trying to warn others about it, but being met with skepticism.

"The Phantom 'Rickshaw" is your basic ghost story, though notable for its sense of the far-flung yet oddly cosy social situation of British bureaucrats in India. But why the apostrophe? Come to find that "rickshaw" is from the Japanese jinriksha (or similar transliteration) and Kipling was just being very precise about the familiar clipped form being a clipping.

"At the End of the Passage" would be a ghost story if there were technically a ghost in it. There is an apparition, but one of a living man (and he appears to himself). Kipling works here by indirection and suggestion, always refusing to spell out the terrors that afflict an engineer in the Indian civil service and eventually lead him to his death. "At the Pit's Mouth" is another ghost-adjacent story, as a man witnesses his own grave being dug, and shivers when a "coolie" jumps over it.

Something is off about the tone of "The Education of Otis Yeere," a story centering on women characters who patter on in an unconvincing way – or perhaps there's just too much antiquated local color and exotic topicality to get through to an American reader in 2022. "The Maltese Cat" is a sport story – a polo story – with too much esoteric detail to say much to such a reader, either.

And then "They," the final story in this book, is one I confess I can't understand at all. Critical sources describe "They" as yet another kind of ghost story, about a limbo of lost children, with profound personal significance to Kipling (who lost a daughter young), but it is a story I suspect you have to keep re-reading and live with for a while, to allow a structure to fill itself in around the oblique and fantastic surface details.

Kipling, Rudyard. The Man Who Would Be King and Other Stories. London: Arcturus, 2019.